Referendums in the United Kingdom

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Referendums in the United Kingdom are by tradition extremely rare due to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. To date, only three referendums have been held which have covered the whole of the United Kingdom: the first on membership of the European Economic Community in 1975, the second on adopting the Alternative vote system in parliamentary elections in 2011, and the third on whether to remain in the European Union in 2016.

The Government of the United Kingdom has also to date held eleven major referendums within the constituent countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on issues of devolution, sovereignty and independence; the first such referendum was the 1973 Northern Ireland border poll and, as of 2016, the most recent is the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

In addition, there have also been numerous referendums held by local authorities on issues such as temperance and directly elected mayors.

Under the European Union Act 2011 there is provision for the holding of future referendums in the event of powers being transferred from the United Kingdom to the European Union under any treaty changes.

Status of referendums

Major referendums have been rare in the UK, and have always been on constitutional issues. Before Tony Blair's Labour government came to power in 1997, only four such referendums had been held. Historically referendums within the United Kingdom were opposed on the supposition that they violate the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. In May 1945 the then Prime Minister Winston Churchill suggested holding a referendum over the question of extending the life of his wartime Coalition until victory was won over Japan, be allowed to continue in office. However, Clement Attlee refused citing ‘I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum which has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and Fascism.’ implying that referendums were a totally unknown and alien device to British politics. In March 1975 Margaret Thatcher also quoted Clement Attlee that referendums are “a device of dictators and demagogues” as Napoleon, Mussolini and Hitler had exploited their use in the past.

There are two types of referendum that have been held by the UK Government, pre-legislative (held before proposed legislation is passed) and post-legislative (held after legislation is passed). To date the previous three UK-wide referendums in 1975, 2011 and 2016 were all post-legislative. Referendums are not legally binding, so legally the Government can ignore the results; for example, even if the result of a pre-legislative referendum were a majority of "No" for a proposed law, Parliament could pass it anyway, because parliament is sovereign.

For any UK-wide referendum to be held legislation has to be passed by the UK Parliament for each vote to take place, as there is no pre-determined format or voting franchise for any such vote. However, unlike a general election there is no legal requirement for HM Government not to take any official position in any such vote. For example, in 1975 under the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson the government formally recommended a "Yes" vote to staying in the European Community and in 2016 the government formally recommended a "Remain" vote to stay in the European Union (a decision which indirectly led to the resignation of David Cameron as Prime Minister following the decision to "Leave the European Union" by the British electorate). In the 2011 referendum no official position was taken as the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government was split on the issue.

Legally, Parliament at any point in future could reverse legislation approved by referendum, because the concept of parliamentary sovereignty means no Parliament can prevent a future Parliament from amending or repealing legislation. However, reversing legislation approved by referendum would be unprecedented.

Finally, under the Local Government Act 1972, there is a provision under which non-binding local referendums on any issue can be called by small groups of voters. This power exists only for parish councils, and not larger authorities, and is commonly known as the "Parish Poll". Six local voters may call a meeting, and if ten voters or a third of the meeting (whichever is smaller) agree, the council must carry out a referendum in 14–25 days. The referendum is merely advisory, but if there is a substantial majority and the results are well-publicised, it may be influential.[1]

Planned referendums

The Labour Government of 1997-2010 held five referendums on devolution, four of which received a yes majority. One concerning the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe was cancelled, given the French and Dutch rejections of the treaty. Another, on whether the UK should adopt the euro, was never held.

The Labour manifesto for the 1997 general election stated "We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons."[2] Despite the research carried out by the Jenkins Commission in 1998 suggesting an AV+ system for Westminster elections, the 2001 manifesto did not make such a promise. After the inconclusive 2010 General Election the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives formed a coalition. As part of the coalition agreement, both parties formally committed to holding a referendum on changes to the electoral system. The referendum was held on 5 May 2011 and was defeated.

Since the Government of Wales Act 2006 became law, there can be referendums in Wales asking the people whether the National Assembly for Wales should be given greater law making powers. The Welsh Labour Party - Plaid Cymru Coalition Government in the Welsh Assembly held such a referendum in 2011, resulting in a yes vote.

The Scottish Government held a referendum on Scottish independence on 18 September 2014. It attracted a turnout of 84.59%, the highest for any referendum held in the UK. The majority (55.3%) voted against Scotland being an independent country.

The Conservative Party announced that they plan to hold a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the European Union (following a renegotiation of powers between the UK and EU), in 2017. However, their Liberal Democrat coalition partners took an opposing stance so it was not Coalition Government policy. The Conservatives then attempted to pass the required legislation as a Private Member's Bill (the European Union (Referendum) Bill 2013-14 introduced by Conservative MP James Wharton), but this was not passed by the House of Lords. Following the United Kingdom general election, 2015 the Prime Minister, David Cameron committed the new Conservative government to holding the referendum. It took place on 23 June 2016.[3] The referendum resulted in an overall vote to leave the EU, as opposed to remaining an EU member, by 51.9% to 48.1%, respectively.

Organisation & Legislation

There was no public body to regulate referendums within the United Kingdom until the Labour government led by Tony Blair in 2000 set out a framework for the running of all future referendums when the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 or PPERA was passed, creating and giving the Electoral Commission responsibility for running all elections and such future referendums. The Act also permitted the appointment of a "Chief counting officer (CCO)" to oversee all future UK-wide referendums which would be held by the Chairperson of the Electoral Commission.


Separate legislation is required for the holding of each UK-wide referendum which is held to set out the referendum question, it's format, the franchise for each plebiscite and how each count is conducted.

United Kingdom referendums

To date there has only been three referendums held which have covered the whole of the United Kingdom. In the following is a run down of each of the nationwide referendums to which have been held.

1975 European Communities membership referendum

All but two areas voted "Yes"

On Thursday 5 June 1975 the United Kingdom held its first ever nationwide referendum on whether to continue its membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) or the "Common Market" as it was more widely known at the time. The UK had been a member of the EEC since January 1, 1973 and the vote came about after a manifesto commitment by the Labour Party under the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the UK General Election in October 1974 and following a renegotiation of EEC membership. All of the major political parties and mainstream press supported continuing membership of the EEC. However, there were significant splits within the ruling Labour party, the membership of which had voted 2:1 in favour of withdrawal at a one-day party conference on 26 April 1975. Since the cabinet was split between strongly pro-European and strongly anti-European ministers, Harold Wilson suspended the constitutional convention of Cabinet collective responsibility and allowed ministers to publicly campaign on either side. Seven of the twenty-three members of the cabinet opposed EEC membership.[4] The referendum which was non-blinding was conducted under the provisions of the Referendum Act 1975 as there was no prior procedure or legislation within the United Kingdom for the holding of any such plebiscite. The two campaign groups in the referendum was advocating a yes vote "Britain in Europe" and advocating a no vote was the national referendum campaign known as "Out and into the World".

The voters were asked to vote yes or no on the question: "Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?" Of the 68 counting areas in the administrative regions of the UK who voted "Yes", only the Shetland Islands and the Outer Hebrides voted "No". In line with the outcome of the vote, the United Kingdom remained a member of the EEC.[5]

United Kingdom European Community (Common Market) membership referendum, 1975
Choice Votes %
Referendum passed Yes 17,378,581 67.23
No 8,470,073 32.77
Valid votes 25,848,654 99.79
Invalid or blank votes 54,540 0.59
Total votes 25,903,194 100.00
Registered voters and turnout 40,456,877 64.03

2011 Alternative Vote referendum

All but ten areas voted "No"

The alternative vote referendum, as part of the Conservative – Liberal Democrat Coalition Agreement drawn up after the 2010 general election, was a nationwide vote held on Thursday 5 May 2011 (the same date as local elections in many areas) to choose the method of electing MPs at subsequent general elections. The referendum concerned whether to replace the present "first-past-the-post" system with the "alternative vote" (AV) method. The voters were asked to vote yes or no on the question "At present, the UK uses the "first past the post" system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the "alternative vote" system be used instead?". It was the first nationwide referendum to be held for some thirty six years and was legislated for under the provisions of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 and is to date the first and only UK-wide referendum to be held on a domestic piece of legislation. Turnout was low at just 42% nationally and was also marked by relatively low key campaigning. The two campaigning groups for the referendum was advocating a yes vote "Yes to Fairer Votes and advocating a no vote NOtoAV.

AV was rejected by 67% of voters with all but ten of the 440 voting areas voted "No" and the proposed legislation to introduce AV which was subject to the referendum was repealed.

United Kingdom Alternative Vote referendum, 2011
Choice Votes %
Referendum failed No 13,013,123 67.9
Yes 6,152,607 32.1
Valid votes 19,165,730 99.41
Invalid or blank votes 113,292 0.59
Total votes 19,279,022 100.00
Registered voters and turnout 45,684,501 42.20

2016 European Union membership referendum

A total of 263 voting areas voted to "Leave" whilst 119 voting areas voted to "Remain" in the referendum.

On Thursday 23 June 2016 the United Kingdom voted for the second time in 41 years on its membership to what is now known as the European Union (EU). Gibraltar voted on the issue for the first time. The referendum was called after Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron made a manifesto commitment in the 2015 UK general election to undertake a renegotiation of the UK's membership to the European Union which would be followed by a in-out referendum. All of the major political parties were in favour of remaining an EU member, except for a split within the Conservative Party. The cabinet was split between pro-EU and anti-EU ministers, and Cameron suspended the constitutional convention of Cabinet collective responsibility, allowing ministers to publicly campaign on either side. Seven of the 23 members of the Cabinet opposed continued EU membership.

The referendum was legislated for under the provisions of the European Union Referendum Act 2015, which legally required HM Government to hold the referendum no later than 31 December 2017. Voters were asked to vote "Remain a member of the European Union" or "Leave the European Union" on the question "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" The main campaign groups for the referendum were advocating a "remain" vote was Britain Stronger in Europe and advocating a "leave" vote was Vote Leave.

The "Leave" option was voted by 52% of voters, as opposed to 48% of voters who wished to "Remain". Of the 382 voting areas, 263 returned majority votes in favor of "Leave" whilst 119 returned majority votes in favor of "Remain" which included every Scottish council area and all but five of the London boroughs. The vote revealed divisions among the constituent nations of the United Kingdom, with England and Wales voting to leave, but Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to remain. The national turnout was 72% which was eight percentage points higher than the turnout back in 1975. It was the first time a UK-wide referendum result had gone against the preferred choice of HM Government who had officially recommended a "Remain" vote. As a direct consequence of losing the referendum, David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister on the morning following the vote. He left office three weeks later on 13 July, and was succeeded by Theresa May.

United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, 2016
Choice Votes %
Leave the European Union 17,410,742 51.89
Remain a member of the European Union 16,141,241 48.11
Valid votes 33,551,983 99.92
Invalid or blank votes 25,359 0.08
Total votes 33,577,342 100.00
Registered voters and turnout 46,500,001 72.21
Voting age population and turnout 51,356,768 65.38
Source: Electoral Commission[6]; UNDESA (UK VAP); US Census Bureau (Gibraltar VAP)

List of other major referendums

Since 1973 there have been eleven other referendums held by the Government of the United Kingdom within the constituent countries related to the issues of sovereignty, devolution and independence in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and in parts of England (in the North East and London).


Northern Ireland



Local referendums

Referendums have been held in local areas in England, Wales and Scotland since 1913. These have covered issues such as local government administration, transport, prohibition, and other local questions. The areas covered have generally corresponded to local authority areas, civil parishes, or wards, with all local government electors of the relevant area being eligible to vote.

Advisory referendums

Principal authorities in Great Britain have the ability to hold an advisory referendum on any issue relating to its services, financial provisions, and other matters that are relevant to the area.[7] The power for principal local authorities to hold a poll within England and Wales is specifically granted by the Local Government Act 2003;[8] previously local polls relied upon a council's power to consult residents and collect information.[7] In Scotland the power is similarly implied by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, and an additional power is conferred by the requirement of the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001 to consult before introducing a road charging scheme.[7] The power to hold local referendums has not been extended to Northern Ireland.

A local advisory referendum is not required to follow the legislation governing the conduct of other referendums and elections in the UK. The local authority can choose how to conduct a local referendum, and may choose to hold the vote solely by post, instead of using polling stations.[9]

Transport referendums

The City of Edinburgh Council held a postal-ballot referendum in February 2005 over whether voters supported the Council's proposed transport strategy. These plans included a congestion charge which would have required motorists to pay a fee to enter the city at certain times of the day. The result was announced on 22 February 2005 and the people of Edinburgh had rejected the proposals. 74% voted against, 26% voted in favour, and the turnout was 62%.

Strathclyde water referendum

Strathclyde Regional Council held a referendum in 1994 on the plans of the Conservative government to privatise water services within Scotland. The government planned to sell the three recently established water authorities in Scotland, created under the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994 as a precursor for privatisation, which would bring Scotland in line with the 1989 privatisation in England and Wales. Strathclyde council, which previously held responsibility for water services, planned the referendum in response to overwhelming public opinion against the move. The referendum, conducted by post, resulted in 97% voting against the plan, with 70% of the electorate participating. Although the referendum had no legal effect, the plan to privatise Scottish water services was eventually dropped.

Statutory referendums

Legislation in England and Wales obliges local authorities to hold and abide by the results of referendums in certain circumstances.[7]

In England, raising Council Tax above a level proscribed by the Local Government Secretary, currently set at two-percent, requires approval in a referendum.[10] This provision applies to all precepting authorities,[note 1] when this is not the billing authority (i.e the district council), the latter will hold the referendum on the precepting authority's behalf, and recoup the costs. Only one council tax referendum has been held, on behalf of the Bedfordshire Police and Crime Commissioner, and the rise was rejected.[11]

The Localism Act 2011 allows parish councils or local community groups to create neighbourhood development plans. The plans are intended to guide planning decisions within the neighbourhood area, by outlining the amount and type of development that should occur in the area, what land may be built upon and how existing buildings may be reused. For a plan to come into force, it must be approved by the electorate in the local area in a referendum. Neighbourhood planning referendums have a high success rate, with all being approved as of December 2015.[7]

Mayoral and other governance referendums

A local authority in England and Wales can hold a referendum on changing its executive arrangements between a directly elected mayor, a leader and cabinet, and in England only, a committee system.[7] A referendum can be held by three methods; by a resolution of the council to hold one, under an order from the government, or upon receiving a petition signed by five percent of registered voters within the local authority area,[12] in the only example of the initiative process in the United Kingdom. If successful, the council must change its governance system, and hold an election for the mayor if necessary.

The process differs between England and Wales. In England, a referendum can be held on moving between any of the three systems, and following the vote another referendum may not be held for 10 years. A council is not required to hold a referendum to change its executive arrangements,[note 2] but a change that has occurred as a result of a referendum can only be changed following another referendum. In Wales, a council must hold a referendum to change between a mayor and leader and cabinet, with the minimum period between votes set at five years.[12]

Fifty-three referendums have taken place in local authorities to establish whether there is support for directly elected mayors. Sixteen were successful and a mayoralty was established; in thirty-seven local authorities the an elected mayor was rejected by voters. An additional six referendums have been held on removing the post of elected mayor, with three mayoralties being retained, and three disestablished.[12] Ten referendums were held in 2012 as part of the government's manifesto to introduce elected mayors in the largest cities in England without the position.[13] Only one referendum was approved, and no further votes have been ordered by the government. Two referendums have been held in response to a petition on moving to a committee system, in Flyde and West Dorset. Both referendums were successful.[14] On average, turnout is similar to that of local elections, with the highest turnout 64% in Berwick-upon-Tweed (held alongside the 2001 general election) and the lowest 10% in the London Borough of Ealing.

Prohibition referendums

The temperance movement led to two countries of the UK gaining the right to hold referendums on the sale of alcohol in the local area, upon the request of a number of local electors.

The Temperance (Scotland) Act 1913 provided that polls could be held in small local areas in Scotland to determine whether to instate a level of prohibition on the purchase of alcoholic beverages; the provisions were later incorporated into the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1959. Between 1913 and 1965 1,131 such polls were held, with the vast majority (1,079) held before 1930.[15] These provisions and the local polls were abolished by the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976.

The Sunday Closing (Wales) Act 1881 mandated that all public houses in Wales be closed on Sundays. The Act was extended to Monmouthshire in 1921. Under the terms of the Licensing Act 1961, on the application of 500 local electors, a referendum could be held in each local government area at seven-year intervals on whether that district should be "wet" or "dry" on the Sabbath. Most districts in the border area and the southern industrial area went "wet" in 1961 or 1968, with most others following suit in 1975. In 1982, the last district, Dwyfor, in western Gwynedd, went "wet" and it was thought that the influence of the Sabbatarian temperance movement had expired and few referendums were called, but surprisingly a further referendum was called in Dwyfor in 1989 and the area went "dry" for another seven years on a 9% turnout. The whole of Wales was "wet" from 1996, and the facility for further referendums was removed by the Sunday Licensing Act 2003.

Parish polls

A parish poll is a referendum held in a civic parish under the Local Government Act 1972.[16] The cost of holding such polls is met by the parish council.[17]

"A poll may be demanded before the conclusion of a community meeting on any question arising at the meeting; but no poll shall be taken unless either the person presiding at the meeting consents or the poll is demanded by not less than ten, or one-third, of the local government electors present at the meeting, whichever is the less."[18]

In September 2007, villagers in East Stoke in Dorset forced a referendum, under the Local Government Act 1972, on this question: "Do You Want a Referendum on the EU Constitutional Treaty? Yes or No?" Of the 339 people who were eligible to vote, 80 voted: 72 votes for Yes and 8 votes for No. The poll was initiated by a supporter of the Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party. The poll was criticised by the chairman of the parish council as "little more than a publicity stunt."[19][20]

See also


  1. Although the legislation includes parish councils, the government does not currently enforce a cap.[10]
  2. A council can adopt a Mayor with a resolution approved by two-thirds of the councillors.


  1. "Local". Retrieved 2010-05-09.
  2. "1997 Labour Party Manifesto". 1999-01-01. Retrieved 2010-05-09.
  3. "Cameron promises European Union referendum by 2017". The Irish Times. 2015-05-09.
  4. DAvis Butler. "The 1975 Referendum" (PDF). Retrieved 19 May 2016.
  5. "Research Briefings – The 1974–75 UK Renegotiation of EEC Membership and Referendum". Retrieved 19 May 2016.
  6. "EU referendum results". Electoral Commission. Retrieved 9 July 2016.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Sandford, Mark (4 March 2016). "Local government: polls and referendums" (03409). House of Commons Library. Retrieved 3 November 2016.
  8. Section 112, Local Government Act 2003, Act No. 2003 c 26 of 18th September 2003. Retrieved on 3 November 2016.
  9. "Edinburgh rejects congestion plan". BBC News. 22 February 2005. Retrieved 18 October 2016.
  10. 1 2 Mark Sandford (26 September 2016). "Council Tax: Local Referendums". Briefing Paper. House of Commons Library (05682). Retrieved 24 October 2016.
  11. "Bedfordshire Police council tax rise rejected at referendum". BBC News. 11 May 2015. Retrieved 28 October 2016.
  12. 1 2 3 Sandford, Mark (17 October 2016). "Directly-elected Mayors". Briefing Paper. House of Commons Library. 05000. Retrieved 3 November 2016.
  13. Syal, Rajeev; Meikle, James (4 May 2012). "David Cameron plan for elected mayors rejected as English cities vote no". Guardian News and Media. Retrieved 3 November 2016.
  14. "West Dorset votes for change in council system". Bridport and Lyme Regis News. Newsquest. Retrieved 3 November 2016.
  15. "Temperance Polls (Hansard, 15 December 1965)". 1965-12-15. Retrieved 2010-12-04.
  16. Foggo, Daniel (1 October 2000). "Parishes reject euro by overwhelming margin". The Daily Telegraph. London.
  17. "Parish Polls". South Staffordshire Council. Retrieved 3 November 2016.
  18. "Local Government Act 1972". Retrieved 2016-07-05.
  19. "Villagers back EU referendum call". BBC News. 2007-09-21. Retrieved 2010-05-09.
  20. "East Stoke Parish Poll on 20th September 2007 - "Do You Want a Referendum on the EU Constitutional Treaty? Yes or No?"". East Stoke Parish Council. Archived from the original on 31 October 2007. Retrieved 8 November 2016.

External links

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